As a part of a community project for a Land and Food System course at UBC, students Aisha Zerbo and Nathalie Lam had the chance to interview a garden coordinator to gain more insight into the ongoing work at their community garden.
My fellow classmate, Aisha, and I recently had the opportunity to have a virtual conversation with Lara Spence, the garden coordinator of Chester’s Field Community Garden. The garden is located at East 37th and Chester Street in Vancouver. Chester’s Field has proven to be a little safe haven for its community, with eleven garden plots used for food production and to brighten their neighbourhood.
Not only is Lara the coordinator of Chester’s Field Community Garden, but she is also the chair of the Fraser Kensington Community Garden Society. The City of Vancouver requires that all community gardens need to have a not-for-profit society supporting it. As the chair of this society, she works with the volunteers working on Chester’s Field Community Garden and Up Elgin Community Garden located at East 37th and Elgin Street which has about 22 plots. Since the two gardens each have a small number of plots, they decided to merge both gardens under one society.
The families who have garden plots at Chester’s Field garden generally live in apartments or lane-way houses with limited space to create a garden. This garden provides an outdoor space for its members to engage in sustainable gardening practices while fostering social connections between gardeners and other members in their community. Chester’s Field garden welcomes members that have an interest or passion for gardening even if they do not reside in the immediate neighbourhood. Lara explained to us: “Most people find it easier to live within a 10-15 minute walk of the garden, so they can water their gardens easier. It’s kind of fun. People with young families bring their kids and hang out and do their gardening.” Participating in a community garden is a great way for families to spend time with their children to learn about different flowers, fruits, and vegetables and sustainable gardening processes, such as composting.
What was meant to be a small garden project to create a sense of community by a group of neighbours, has now evolved into a developed garden cared for and loved by many. Lara described to us: “In 2008, the space that is now [Chester’s Field garden] was an empty half City lot with four tulip trees, but otherwise covered in dandelions next to an old house near a bus stop. There was space that [could] be used for food production. People in my neighbourhood really [wanted our] community to feel safe and happy.” Chester’s Field garden began with ten neighbours coming together to dig garden plots with the hope of building community within the neighbourhood.
The garden was one of the first community gardens established in the City of Vancouver. When Chester’s Field garden was being launched, there was not much infrastructure in place. Lara mentioned to us: “Our garden didn’t have water the first year. We asked the family that lived in the house next to the garden if we could hook up our hose to their outside tap.” The garden continued to flourish despite the lack of resources in the beginning due to the enthusiasm of its members.
In the years that followed, infrastructure grants, Vancouver Foundation grants, plant donations and burger and beer fundraisers (years before COVID-19) helped transform the empty, neglected lot to the thriving garden it is now. Upon entering the garden, you will find a community engagement notice board that is shaped as a red chesterfield. As you walk into the garden, you will see many perennials and eleven neat garden plots. Lara described to us that the garden not only offers a place to grow fresh, local produce, but it also creates a welcoming and beautiful surrounding for everyone to enjoy:
“There are four City of Vancouver tulip trees, two pear trees we got from the City, a plum tree that was donated, and many drought-tolerant bee-friendly perennials. We have two big California lilacs, shrubs, yarrow, and tons of naturally growing oregano that’s a bit out of control.”
While managing a garden can be gratifying and fulfilling, it can also be work. There is work in coordinating new members, collecting payments, setting up work parties, running a society, managing the wait list, reminding current members to maintain their plots, applying for grants, and dealing with unexpected day-to-challenges. Chester’s Field garden often faces vandalism and theft as the garden is situated in a high traffic location near a bus stop and it does not have a fence. Lara described to us one unfortunate incident that happened a few years ago: “One gardener was growing beautiful ‘Princess’ pumpkins, like Cinderella’s carriage. Someone stole the pumpkins just before Halloween which was really sad for the people who had been growing them. We’ve had other vegetable theft, too, new soil theft, and, sadly, too much trash.” It can be discouraging for gardeners who have invested a significant amount of time, effort, and love to cultivate their produce and not be able to enjoy it. Especially in a time where there are increasing numbers of people lacking the access to safe, nutritious food, it is disappointing to hear about perfectly good produce being stolen or wasted.
As COVID-19 continued to progress this year, new health restrictions were implemented by the City of Vancouver to ensure safety for members of the garden and the community. This required Chester’s Field garden to adapt their activities, such as not going to the garden if sick, sanitizing hands, and not sharing tools or equipment. The City of Vancouver was very helpful with sending out policy ideas to keep everyone safe. While gardening work parties could happen with the safety measures in place in the spring of 2020, people could also garden on their own schedule.
Lara recounts that despite these uncertain times, members still found success and joy in their garden plots: “Some people had a great gardening year because they had more time. This was the best year for fruit. The fruit trees and the raspberries went crazy. It was exciting and we had a great year!” The garden had an amazing growing season and it provided a much-needed distraction from current events in an outdoor setting.
“Success for me is having 11 people participating because it’s nice to know that all the [garden plots] are getting used.”
The garden provides an opportunity for people to grow fresh produce while exploring new gardening techniques. Some members will show great enthusiasm for gardening before realizing it does not fit in with their lifestyle whereas some gardeners research different methods to take care of their garden plot. For example, one gardener used a special grid arrangement with neat rows to optimize the growth of the plants. Lara explained to us that every gardener at Chester’s Field garden has varying levels of interest, passion, time, and knowledge for gardening and there is a place for everyone at the garden:
“Everyone’s on a different journey. Sometimes [you] just cannot get the momentum to get out there and plant tomatoes this weekend. Some plots look untended [while] some people are really into it. I’m amazed at some of them.”
What started as an empty lot filled with dandelions is now filled with perennials, vegetables, berries and fruit trees. Lara expressed her gratitude for the people who volunteer their time to keep the garden beautiful and tidy. In an effort to create a welcoming neighbourhood, Chester’s Field Community Garden has grown beyond just eleven garden plots, offering a place to bring together its community members to enjoy the beautiful garden.
As plots become available from time to time, there are ways for people to get involved and participate within Chester’s Field Community Garden. For more information and updates on the activities of Chester’s Field Community Garden, such as joining the waitlist or a work party, email Lara or visit the garden’s Facebook page.
About the authors: Aisha Zerbo and Nathalie Lam are students at UBC in the Land and Food Systems Faculty working on a community project in collaboration with Can You Dig It.